Here are some excerpts from Chapter 3, The Rise of the High-Minded Idealists
As the cartoon editor of the New Yorker since 1997, Robert Mankoff has provided his readers with many wry and whimsical social commentaries about the incongruities of modern life, but none better than a cartoon he himself drew in 1979. It depicts a large gathering of clean-cut, middle-aged people standing around in a field, wearing suits and ties and prim skirts, sipping beverages, chatting amiably . . . and it was captioned “10th Anniversary Woodstock Reunion.” So goeth the revolution.
Woodstock happened in the last half of the last year of the 1960s, just 3 weeks after JFK’s destiny had been fulfilled by landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. What a stark contrast! Three men crammed into a capsule in the loneliest, quietest corner of the known universe, and 400,000 people noisily spilling over the back roads and port-a-potties of Bethel, New York; Neil Armstrong’s all-American Navy haircut and gleaming white space suit, and a whole county’s worth of hip-length hippie-dos, muttonchop beards, and mud-splattered tie-dye. Woodstock may not have been the finish line of the long and winding road through the sixties counterculture, but it was one small step.
Those born in the first wave of what would later be called the Baby Boom generation, from 1945 through about 1954, grew up in a convulsing society, with conformity in the rearview mirror of their Edsels and individualism out on the road ahead of their VW Microbuses. Many, of course, went off to war; some 50,000 of them came back in body bags. Some of those with more favorable draft numbers (or connections, or deferments) stayed the course and slotted themselves into the prescribed positions of society and career, the arc of which was still rooted in the fifties and which they therefore thought they
But there were others still, those who may have been raised in a paternalistic cocoon of comfort and affluence, yet for whom Silent Spring and Adelle Davis and LSD and the Warren Commission and the My Lai massacre and the 1968 Democratic convention were all turning points. Those events and many others combined to cast profound doubts in the minds of this smart, disaffected group of young people, doubts about just whose interests government and industry were truly serving. The world was failing them, and the more its stodgy scions tried to defend the status quo, the further away the kids of the sixties turned. For them, it was less a matter of personal expression than moral compunction that drove them to reject materialism, vilify the notion of capitalist competition, and look for more idealistic alternatives. Thus, as they reached adulthood and started their careers in the late sixties and early seventies, their goal was singular and humble: Save the world.
To those who know him, it comes as little surprise that Mo Siegel ultimately scaled such great heights.
He was born in 1950 in the town of Salida, Colorado, 9,000 feet up in the Monarch Pass of the Rocky Mountains—a spot where his parents had stopped en route from Chicago to Albuquerque and decided to buy a dairy ranch. The Siegels later moved to the town of Eagle Lake, north of Colorado Springs, a 7,200-foot-high “snow belt” in a region that always knew a lot of snow, at least until chlorofluorocarbons started punching a hole in the ozone layer and warming things up a bit. “Lots of people say, ‘I had to walk a mile and a half through the snow to get to school every day,’” said Mo. “But no, I had to walk a mile and a half through the snow to get to school every day.” His eyes sparkle gently in telling the story, but his feet shift around a bit; they remember.
Siegel’s mother died when he was 2 years old, at which point his 9-year-old sister, Sherry, took responsibility for raising him. His father eventually remarried and was a very busy man, so the Siegel kids were often on their own. Mo spent a lot of time outdoors, hiking the mountains and studying the natural world around him with more than just a child’s wonderment: starting at age 7 or 8, he began picking wild berries in the mountains and selling them to some of the local ladies, who would make jam out of them.
Born Jewish, he nevertheless attended The Abbey, a monastery and preparatory school in Canon City, Colorado. There, searching for some sort of stable ground amidst the rumblings of society, he became interested in a different kind of spirituality through The Urantia Book, a 1955 work that presented an integrated view of science, philosophy, and religion based upon the teachings of Jesus. Siegel went on, briefly, to Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, but, profoundly distressed by the world he saw unraveling around him, he dropped out in 1969 and moved to Aspen. He had no particular plan. He lived on the cheap, hiked Red Mountain or Buttermilk whenever he could, got high, learned all about health foods, followed the course of world events through the newspaper and just shook his head. In order to earn a little cash, he sold posters (Jefferson Airplane, Peter Max, Alice’s Restaurant, Marc Chagall, peace signs, etc.) out of a small storefront.
Soon, these interests began to converge. Siegel moved his poster business into a tiny health foods shop called Mother’s Natural Food Store, and began working there for the founder, a fellow named Roy Rickus. Mother’s offered standard fare health foods for the times—brown rice, whole grains, dried fruits—but also brewed an herbal beverage that Rickus called Moo Tea, which was offered free to all of the shoppers. Siegel was intrigued. He knew that herbal tea was popular in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, but it was virtually unknown in the United States, where traditional black teas like Lipton had defined the category for decades. Moreover, wild herbs, as he well knew, grew abundantly in the nearby mountains; whereas the traditional black tea plant, Camellia sinensis, was almost non-existent in the United States, outside of a few plantations in South Carolina.
He began reading books about plants, and trekking into the mountains with botanists in search of herbs. Siegel learned how to identify edible herbs like chamomile, wild peony root, devil’s club, and osha, and how to avoid some of the poisonous ones like lupine, larkspur, and black nightshade. But mostly what he developed was a nose for herbs that could make money, as he found that some of the tea blends he created proved to be very popular back in town. “Wow, you really ought to sell that tea,” people would tell him. “That stuff is really great!”
But there was no particular reason to think that a real business was rustling around in the weeds. America was a coffee-drinking nation—per-capita consumption was still high, between 2 and 3 cups per day, and new freeze-dried instant brands like Maxim and Taster’s Choice were being marketed with $10 million each in annual advertising. Meanwhile, Lipton dominated what tea market there was with its traditional black tea products. But to a young idealist and self-described “tree-hugger” and “health fanatic” like Mo Siegel, the dream was not so much about making money, not yet; the little boy who had once picked and sold wild berries had a bigger mission. “I was convinced that part of the social trend that needed to happen in America was for people to eat healthy food and that the junk food bandwagon was just a horrible thing,” said Siegel. Tea, brewed from freshly picked wild mountain herbs, free of caffeine and additives, could almost be a subversive beverage—an alternative to lab-created coffees, sugar-laden sodas and chemically enhanced juices. A few months later, he left his posters and everything else he owned behind at Mother’s, hitched a ride with friends 200 miles east to Boulder, where, between Hanna Kroeger’s New Age Foods and the Green Mountain Grainery, there was a bit more of a health foods scene.
Still in need of money, Siegel sold carrot juicers door to door. But he continued to hike into the mountains, often with his girlfriend (soon to be wife), Peggy, friend Wyck Hay, and Wyck’s girlfriend, Lucinda. Siegel sold Hay on the merits of herbal tea, and they decided to create a company, which they named Celestial Seasonings. Working out of a tiny A-frame and a country barn given to him by a friend, Siegel would go off and pick wild herbs with Hay, and then dump them onto screen doors to filter them and let them dry. Then they made blends such as “Mo’s 36″ with just herbs and natural ingredients; no artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. They packed them into muslin bags, sewed them by hand, and tied them with elastic they had salvaged from scrap telephone wire. In their first year of business, they sold 10,000 tea bags to Green Mountain Grainery—a surprising success, though one that Siegel knew was not scalable. They would need some money to change that.
Of course, in any industry, respect is hard to come by for newcomers. The existing players use every tool at their disposal to erect costly barriers to entry and keep new competitors at bay. Access to capital is limited. And if your product is founded upon anything other than pure, bare-knuckled capitalism, you are at a further disadvantage; idealism has no place.
These were some hard lessons for Celestial Seasonings in its early years.
Celestial needed more space, and approached a company called Early Bird Cereal—the only other natural foods company in Boulder—for help. The landlord of Early Bird’s building refused to rent space directly to Mo Siegel’s little tea company, fearing it wouldn’t be around for long, but he did agree to rent new space to Early Bird and let them sublease to Celestial. Early Bird subsequently went bankrupt.
Seeking capital, Siegel teamed up with Wyck Hay’s brother, John. “He came in with all the big money,” said Siegel. “He sold his car and the equity left was $500.” Mo and John decided to apply for a loan, and set up an appointment to meet with the manager of the local bank. They walked into his office—which had solid glass walls that allowed him to look out into the lobby of the bank— wearing jeans, smelling of herbs, and armed with Tupperware containers of Mo’s 36 and Sleepytime blends. They had a business plan that envisioned a $100 million company, and a request for $25,000 to get it all going. Mo thought the pitch went well, especially when, toward the end of the meeting, the manager said, “I need to bring the other executives in to hear the story. Would that be okay? Would you mind repeating your story?” The other executives came in, listened patiently to the story of Mo and the wild herbs and the screen doors and the “natural foods industry,” and then the meeting ended. They shook
hands and left. And as Mo and John were walking through the lobby toward the exit, they looked back at the glass office and saw all of the executives laughing hysterically. Apparently, they had been asked to repeat the dog-and-peony show for sheer entertainment purposes.
The bank ended up giving Celestial Seasonings a $5,000 loan. They made John’s mother co-sign for it.
Another humbling moment came on the road trip Mo Siegel took around 1971, from Colorado to New York. He stopped in Chicago, and wound up at a dinner party being thrown by Bob Bauman, a family friend of Mo’s wife, Peggy. At the party was none other than C.W. Cook—the post–C.W. Post “C.W.,” chief executive officer of General Foods, the erstwhile Postum Cereal Company. Mo was introduced to C.W., and the conversation began pleasantly enough. Young Mr. Siegel had driven in from Colorado? He was in the tea business? Wasn’t that interesting? General Foods had many successful beverages, noted C.W., including Tang, the artificially colored and flavored powdered drink mix that had been going into space since John Glenn’s mission in 1962. “One of these days,” Siegel remembers C.W. saying optimistically, “all of our food is going to be made in the labs out of chemicals.” There would be no need to eat apples off trees. Vitamins would be regulated and problems like salmonella poisoning would be eliminated.
This was, of course, nothing more than the Voice of the Progress itself, sounding faint echoes of Justus von Leibig, DDT cow barn fly ads, “better living through chemistry,” and “We’ve all got a smile on/That started with Nylon.” But to a highminded idealist like Mo Siegel, it struck just the wrong note. Headstrong, full of the ideas of his generation, emboldened by the modest successes Celestial Seasonings had racked up, Siegel launched a rhetorical counteroffensive—arguing that chemicals and food additives were endangering our health, and that the companies producing them should be held accountable for those costs to society. C.W. laughed derisively, stunned by the naïveté and insolence. “Why don’t you give up your goofy little tea company and get a real job and come work for me at General Foods?” Siegel shot back: “You keep up that attitude and the natural foods industry is going to explode!”
One can only imagine the horror that must have been felt by the hosts, Peg’s family friends the Baumans, as they watched the seasoned CEO and the upstart herbalist locking philosophical horns. “I probably ruined their dinner party,” laughed Siegel in remembrance, “because at the end of that hour we were deep into it.” But it proved to be a seminal moment in Mo Siegel’s life, and by transference in the history of Celestial Seasonings and the entire natural foods industry: The Enemy had been identified, a critical requirement for any mission-driven company. In the months and years to come, when Celestial struggled to make payroll and didn’t know whether the company would still be there in the morning, Mo would think back to that confrontation with C.W. Cook. “He turned out to be one of the inspirations of my life. I’d think of his words . . . and it just invigorated me to get up the next morning and solve whatever problem was in our way.”